An Outback Sarcophagus

Kyrah Honner

John Plains has found many strange things buried in the remote corners of his property, but never a dead body. Though neighbours were far and few between, two farmers in the surrounding area had found bodies in the past few years. Granted, one of them was a teenager who had been part of a hazing gone wrong. Still, the town of Finnegan Creek was notorious for death.

Cattle farming was hard but honest work, but money was always tight. John had to feed his wife and two daughters as well as three whole paddocks of bloody cattle. He didn’t consider himself a morbid man but seeing the number of posters scattered and pinned on the corkboard outside of Woolworths would cause anyone to stoop to digging.

Posters with grainy black-and-white images of strangers’ faces, some with names printed beneath that he couldn’t pronounce. The bold, black REWARD would always catch his eye whenever he popped in for a carton of eggs. He mentioned to his missus once, that they would be lucky indeed to find one of the missing backpackers on their property if the reward was such a sum.

‘John, how can you even say that?’ She had snapped, looking around worriedly as though someone had heard him in their own kitchen.

He hadn’t ever mentioned the matter to Mrs Plains again. His interest was a dark secret; something reserved for midnight when he was certain that everyone else in the house was fast asleep. Every night, he’d tiptoe out with cargo pants pulled hastily over his pyjamas, push his ute far enough down the long driveway for him to dare to turn the key and hold his breath as it sputtered to life. He had not been caught yet – as far as he knew.

He knew his property like the back of his hand. In fact, he knew it even better once he had drawn a map of the acreage and divided the square metres into potential digging sites. About a third of the squares had been crossed off as duds, most of them located within a fair distance of the house. The creased-over piece of paper sat safe in the glovebox of his ute, where no one else would find it.

Tonight, he drove right to the boundary of his farm.

Cutting off the ignition, John shrugged a heavy rain jacket over his flannelette nightshirt, shivering even in the warmth of the cab. He told himself that it was the cold creeping in from outside.

The disappearances and indefinite deaths of backpackers over the years had accumulated so much that the residents of Finnegan Creek were almost numb to it. Even the human details – hair colour, height, recognisable features – didn’t touch the iced-over hearts of the locals. One unknown didn’t hold more importance over another.

Even so, John felt no less immoral for hoping.

He switched on his big Dolphin torch, setting it on the hood of the ute to illuminate the general area where he wanted to work. Reaching into the back tray, he pulled out a shovel from its hiding place beneath the tarp. The shovelhead was blunt. It would require more force than usual to dig with, but John had no complaints. He was strong from years of toil, even if his gut stretched the limits of his shirt.

He held the crudely drawn map in front of the torch’s light to double check his location. He circled the lit-up ground, surveying the best spot to start. The grass along the fence line was overgrown and neglected. It would be difficult to cover his tracks, so he took several long strides until he stood about five metres from the wire fence. He pushed the shovel onto the dirt and began digging.

Despite the wintry chill that always settled on the rural area in the night, beads of sweat formed on his brow as he set a mechanical pace. Digging was strenuous, but he had been doing it so often lately that he was used to the burn in his muscles.

He went on for about an hour, John was beginning to give up hope on this ditch. If there was a body here, it shouldn’t be buried so deep. About to step back and call it a night, the shovel hit something with a thump. He paused. Dirt didn’t make that sound. Dirt didn’t smell like that either – a rotten tang behind the freshly overturned dirt and mingling with his own sweat.

He stood still for a moment, contemplating in disbelief, and then excitement.

All at once he resumed digging, tossing dirt over his shoulder. Dust snuck up his running nose. His hot breath came out in small clouds and he grunted with effort, not even pausing to wipe his brow. This was finally it, he had surely found something, there was going to be a body and he would receive the reward and the local newspaper would snap a picture of him at the front gate of his farm and—

A dog snarled behind him. An ugly, savage sound that would never have come from a cattle dog. It sent big, burly John’s heart to his throat and his stomach to his knees.

No, John thought. No, no, please just let this be finished. He only needed ten more minutes.

Another warning growl and John took the hint. He scrambled out of the shallow grave, rushing to the ute and tossing the shovel in the back tray. He chanced a glance as he pulled open the driver’s door. Three feral dogs converged to where he was digging seconds ago, sniffing at the overturned dirt.

John slid into the cab, reaching for his rifle before realising that he had left it at home. The mange-ridden dogs startled at the sound of the door shutting, growling viciously. Their eyes glinted green in the light of the torch.

‘Shit,’ John said upon realising that the Dolphin torch was still on the hood. His stomach turned at the thought of getting out to grab it. He would just have to come back tomorrow night for it and hope that the battery hadn’t run flat. And that the dogs were gone. And that nobody else had claimed his missing backpacker.

Pulling away from the wild dogs, John’s blood boiled. He had been so close, and a pack of dogs ruined it. There was a tiny voice in the back of his mind that was concerned for the safety of his cattle on the other side of the property, but all he could focus on was what he had found.

He was certain he had found something.

The ute was thrown in reverse, backing up to the ditch. John barely took a moment to wrench open the door. The torchlight had been obscured in the grass and in his haste, the tyres of the ute crushed it to smithereens. The only light was the red glow of the taillights. He could hear the snuffles of the dogs around his rightfully found body. He’d be damned if his means of that reward ended up in dried-up dog turd.

They growled in warning, bathed in the red light and they smelled putrid like they had already been feasting on a corpse. John had never been much of a church man, despite the wife and kids going every Sunday for sermons. He couldn’t help but throw a quick, silent prayer up to the sky.

He prayed that he could protect his prize.

He adjusted his tight grip on the handle of the shovel. There was the heavy crunch of dry grass to his left. He held his ground. The missing posters, with big, promising REWARD flashed in his mind. He stepped forward to fight.

Either way, John Plains was going to end up on the front page of the Finnegan Creek newspaper if it killed him.

Author: Kyrah H is a fourth-year creative writing student of the Wiri and Luritja First Nations. She like to experiment with horror-themed fiction. Expect to see more of her work in ScratchThat, GLASS magazine, and online.

Artist: SaBelle Pobjoy-Sherriff is a third year fine arts visual arts student. Her art practice uses narrative and mythology to create obscure illustrations and sculptures. Using acrylic paint and coloured pencils she creates vibrant worlds and creatures. Her current work focuses on the current climate crisis and the idea of corrupting escapism. You can find more on her Instagram @SaBelleeee.

Editors: David Farr and Grace Harvey